One of the things we constantly say, but sometimes seem to rarely do, is, “We need to learn from the past so we can be better prepared for the future.” While certainly many instructors try to keep that in mind and incorporate lessons from past events into their protocol and training development, some of the lessons do get ignored. In this article we’re going to take a look at a lesson we need to keep in mind and do our best to train for: shooters that barricade their attack target before starting their killing.
Before we examine the three examples we’re going to use, let’s recognize one thing: almost all active shooter response training includes the caveat that the responding officers’ aggressive neutralization efforts have to stop if the event transitions into a hostage barricade situation. What makes the difference? If there is no active killing going on. We are all taught to get to the scene, make entry as quickly as possible and neutralize the attacker but that is dependent on the continuing threat. If we get on scene and the attacker has locked himself in a classroom, no shots are being fired, and s/he’s essentially now holding whatever number of hostages, it’s a hostage barricade situation. Officers should hold the inner perimeter and let SWAT come do their thing. If the killing starts back up, the aggressive entry and neutralization has to be immediately enacted.
But what if the scene is already barricaded when you get there? In the three examples below, we see one incident where it was barricaded and hostages held, and then the killing started after the police were on scene. There are two examples where the shooter barricaded the attack zone seemingly to increase his potential victim pool before starting his attack. It’s vital to understand that whether the attacker’s intent is to trap his victims in or lock the police out the end result is the same: an increase in time before neutralization of the attacker. With proven “kill rates” as fast as one casualty per seven seconds, time truly does (and always has) equal lives.
Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania
On October 2, 2006, Charles C. Roberts seized the West Nickel Mines school. It wasn’t hard to do. The school was a one-room educational facility built and used by the Amish in that community. Atypical from active shooter events, Roberts took the teacher and students hostage and held them while he boarded up windows and the door. He knew the police were responding and had to have known that he wasn’t going to get out of the building alive unless he surrendered. Instead, after he was satisfied with his fortifications and knowing the police were outside, he began to kill the students and teacher before committing suicide. In such a confined space, no matter how fast the police responded from outside to inside, having to breach the barricaded entryways / paths of access, Roberts easily could kill his hostages before being stopped.
The unfortunate part (beyond the victims) is that the lesson to be learned can’t truly be enacted. The lesson is that some hostage barricade situations aren’t. They are a prelude to active killer situations. How do we know the difference? It’s next to impossible to know the difference and would almost entirely depend on being able to profile the suspect, in lightning speed, before he starts killing. Even then, if an officer takes pre-emptive action, defending such action to a Grand Jury after the fact would be near impossible. None of this bodes well for being able to prevent deaths in this type of incident.
In April of 2007 when Seung Hui Cho performed his mass attack at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, he did so in one wing of Norris Hall. The U-Shaped building had two wings, one at either end of the central hall. Each wing was three stories high, and one of those stories was below ground level as compared to the central hall way. Prior to committing his attack, he chained shut all of the doors on the bottom floor in the wing he committed his attack. There was no way for him to close off access from the central hall and anyone coming in that way would be coming into the second floor of the wing where he committed his attack. As a result of his having chained shut the access doors, when police first got to the scene, they couldn’t make timely access. The solution, enacted after they’d been on scene for a couple minutes and tried to find a way in, was to use a shotgun to breach a door. Reportedly when Cho heard the shotgun blast that gained law enforcement access, he immediately shot himself in the head, committing suicide rather than facing the police.
After the extensive debriefs of the response, many trainers and tacticians recognized the potential need for patrol officers to have some type of training and equipment for breaching. This wasn’t an instance of a hostage barricade situation that went bad. Cho was actively shooting when police arrived on scene and breaching an access was required. One commander even suggested ramming a vehicle through the door as “standard protocol” in the future (not recommended). The challenge was that once Cho had done it, any future / copycat attackers might do the same based on his example. It was a possibility all law enforcement had to be aware of and plan for in some fashion.
Ben Keith (Albuquerque 11/12/18)
On Monday, November 12, 2018, Waid Melton was supposed to have the day off but he showed up at his place of employment, Ben Keith Mexican Food distributors and shot three other employees. Prior to committing his attack at the warehouse, he blocked a door with a forklift, keeping people from exiting through it. This is different from a barricaded door that’s been locked, nailed or chained shut. A forklift, depending on manufacture and model, can way thousands of pounds and if no officer on the scene has the key and knows how to drive it, it’s not getting moved, presenting a barrier not only to people trying to escape but to officers trying to gain entry.
There isn’t really anything that can be done to train for this type of situation. There is just no way to train every officer for every potential challenge.
The best we can do is continue to study past events and learn from the after-action-reports / debriefs of any new events that occur. Unfortunately, as much as we’d like to have nothing new to learn from, the attacks keep occurring and will until we can see into someone’s heart to read their intentions.